As controversy still smolders about the fate the United Way building in downtown Toledo and whether this artful structure should have a date with the wrecking ball, I can’t help but think of the controversy that surrounded the fate of the previous building on that spot. The year was 1968 and the big story in Toledo was the future of the old Town Hall Burlesque theatre at the corner of St. Clair and Orange Streets. Ambitious plans for an “urban renewal” project did not include the Town Hall so it was destined for a demolition. An idea jubilantly embraced by some city fathers and mothers were only too happy to see the burlesque theatre removed from Toledo’s urban landscape, once and for all. And within the year, it came to pass and the Town Hall was reduced to rubble. Progress once again had trumped the past, and within a year, the new Community Services Building was under construction. Interesting that 40-years later it too would become the lightening rod of controversy as to its value and need. I wonder how many other men of my age see the irony. And how many of us recall that this land was hallowed ground for those of us who still hold a special place in our hearts( and hormones) for the beloved Town Hall. I recall vividly my first sojourn to this temple of flesh when on a hot and steamy summer night in 1965, with a freshly minted Ohio Driver’s license and a group of school chums all packed into my 1958 Chevy Biscayne, we made our way into downtown Toledo and drove straight to Orange and St. Clair Streets. There stood before us the unmistakable marquee of the Town Hall. Where, for a few bucks and a phony ID, we could lift the veil from our childhood innocence and get to finally see a real and (nearly) naked woman in person. Not just one, but several, on stage, in clear view, gyrating provocatively with come-hither looks, that spoke directly and forcefully to our innermost fantasies. A young man’s sensory adventure that unlocked the door to our developing manhood . A hormonal overload and the best two dollars I ever spent. It was like having your first beer, or getting your first car. A special rite of passage. A demystification of those daily Town Hall ads we’d see sizzling from the pages of the Blade Peach section where pulpy pictures of pouting women stared back at us as if to say, “I know what you are thinking”. We marveled at the names like “Rusty the Great 48”, or Dixie Dawn or Busty Russel, or Fifi Paree, or Tempest Storm. These weren’t names, these were promises. I’m sure I’m not the only 50-plus man who carries around these sweet memories of Toledo’s highly vaunted citadel of sex, the Town Hall.
I feel very fortunate now to have made a few Saturday night forays into downtown Toledo to see and experience the old Town Hall, because I was witnessing, albeit unknowingly, the last glimpse of an era. In Toledo, and all across the country live burlesque was fading fast, giving way to a new type of sexy entertainment. The go-go dancers, the skin-flick movie houses and the smaller suburban strip clubs were now the new burlesque. Sadly, the concept of the old burlesque paradigm had outlived its time. In its final gasping years, it had become a sort of poignant parody of itself. A last stop for many aging geriatric performers whose best years were behind them. When the legendary venue was reduced to remembrance, the theatre’s long time owner, the famous and formidable burlesque queen, Rose la Rose was heartbroken and angry. She fought the move, but lost. City fathers in Toledo even tried to pass a law outlawing burlesque throughout the entire city in an effort to stop Rose from opening the old Esquire Theatre at Superior and Jefferson as a replacement to the Town Hall. A federal judge, however, intervened and ruled against the city; but while Rose La Rose won the battle, she lost the war. By the time she was able to reopen burlesque theatre in Toledo under the Esquire marquee, its magic was fading quickly. This “innocent” brand of sexually suggestive show business had become too mild and hokey for the times. Rose la Rose tried to keep it on life support, but finally, even she yielded to the pressure of the times and began running x-rated movies with a mix of live performances at the Esquire. It was too little, too late. The concept soon died, and so too did Rose la Rose. In 1972, Rosina DePella, aka Rose La Rose, died of cancer at the age of 53. Her 16 year run in Toledo was finally over.
WHO WAS ROSE LA ROSE?
While Rose La Rose’s name in Toledo may have faded from the footlights to the footnotes, she was considered by many to have been the undisputed “queen of burlesque”. Long before Rose settled in Toledo to operate the Town Hall, she was enjoying considerable notoriety and fame as the highest paid stripper in America and probably the most popular. Rose was born Rose DePella in New York’s Little Italy in 1919, and by the time she was a young woman she was dancing at Minsky’s famed burlesque theatre in New York and where, according to author Jane Briggeman, one day a sign painter decided to change her name to Rose La Rose. She reportedly hated it, but the audiences loved it. Her new name, her fetching good looks and a daring act soon propelled Rose to star status on the New York burlesque circuit. It didn’t take long for Rose to figure out that she had a future, so she legally took the name Rose La Rose, and began traveling the country, while enjoying the rave reviews for her talents and glamorous costumes. News commentator Walter Winchell reported that Rose was earning $2,000 a week in the 1940’s. A small fortune in those years. She also augmented her fame with several movie roles, however they were not films likely to be seen at most movie houses with titles like “The Wages of Sin”.
By the mid 1950’s, Rose and her mother, who traveled with her, decided it was time to settle down and she did so in Toledo. In 1958, she became the proprietor of the Town Hall Theatre at St. Clair and Orange streets. While Rose operated the Town Hall, she still traveled and performed, keeping her name in the lights. But gradually, as her mother grew older and sicker, Rose retired from the road to become a Toledo businesswoman and one that Toledo will remember for years to come.
WHERE ARE THE LOST PIECES OF THE TOWN HALL?
The research for this story took me to a Toledo Blade story from 1968 that told of a big auction that Rose was holding to sell off the memorabilia from the old Town Hall just weeks before the wrecking ball took center stage. The sale included photos of the many dancers who performed there, posters, lights, fixtures, unclaimed trunks of performers’ costumes, plus some unique artwork that adorned the exterior and lobby of the theatre. Rose La Rose even sold off three trunk loads of her personal costumes from her early days on the bump and grind circuit. The theatre seats themselves were sold to the highest bidders. The auction was held in May of 1968 — and I now wonder what ever happened to these pieces of Toledo’s past. In what basement, or garage or warehouse are these artifacts gathering dust or conversation? If you know, it might be nice to find out. Almost as nice as that first trip I took to Orange and St. Clair Streets one summer’s night in 1965.